Future rugrats for Doubting Thomas
March 3, 2007 4:33 PM   Subscribe

How do you give your children the benefits of your own religious upbringing when you have left that religion?

Hello, AskMeFi -

This is long and earnest, and deals with organized religion... a calm topic if there ever was one. Please go easy with your response (and the snark).

My family is Catholic and my parents are some of the best examples (I know) of what that religion can be: they run a monthly dinner at a homeless shelter, my father (retired) works at a halfway house, they were recently in Alabama with Habitat for Katrina relief. They have never been judgmental or tried to force anything down my throat...(they gave me "The Fountainhead" when I was 14... a decision I still scratch my head over).

I was an altar boy all the way till college (no abusive priests), more due to being able to play with matches during Mass than any real spiritual calling. Later, I began to doubt some of the core beliefs, (and the idea of organized religion in general), and I went from going to church every Sunday, to not going at all...(as soon as I went away to school and not going became an option ;-) ).

All that said, I look back fondly at the role church played in my family: there was a common belief system, a weekly shared (if boring) activity, and a large group of family friends. It played a significant part in my upbringing and I put it in the "+" column.

Now, I am in my early 30's and wonder what I am going to do with my future kids. I want to provide them the benefits of what I had, but don't see myself faking it for their sake as a real solution. On the other hand, I don't look forward to answering their questions when I, myself, haven't figured things out. I want to provide them a foundation rather than doubts. I mean, I'd be happy if they turned out like I did, but want to give them the option of having that, if only to decide to walk away when they are older. Do parents become religious for their kids? (Sorta like not getting divorced till they are in college)...

Another concern is that many of the "godless" kids (joke) I've met growing up had problems, or, at least, a harder time than I did. This may not be a direct result to their not being religious (ala, going to church every week was only possible due to my family being close and sturdy), but I think about it.

So, that's it. I don't intend to insult those of you (or your parents) who grew up agnostic or atheist. Religiousity does not equate good parenting...it just happens that they are tied together in my parents. I know many (most?) here at MeFi think religion is a waste of time, or, worse yet, have been hurt by it. I'm not advocating religion or church (I have no plans to return to it), just speaking from my experience.

For those of you who have similar (positive) religious backgrounds and have also "strayed from the path": how do you deal with all this?

Thank you for your time and thoughts-
posted by cgs to Religion & Philosophy (25 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Unitarian Universalism.
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:46 PM on March 3, 2007

Community involvement need not be through a church. You can certainly go volunteer at any number of places, including church-run charities, without being religious.

Family together time can be replaced with camping trips, board game nights, walks in the park, and all sorts of other events. Choose one that suits your fancy.
posted by chrisamiller at 5:02 PM on March 3, 2007

Brace yourself, I've got a lot of thoughts on this.

I think this is something where you might want to take your cues from secular Jews. Many of my Jewish friends growing up had nonpracticing parents, but they still went to Hebrew school, had their bat mitzvahs, and so forth because their parents wanted them to understand their cultural heritage and their place as Jews in America, and meet other young Jews to be friends with. I was brought up going to Armenian church for similar reasons; my dad is an extremely lapsed Catholic and my mom has never been very religious (she's more "spiritual" than anything), but I went to Sunday school for most of my childhood all the same, and Armenian church camp in the summers. I don't remember if my parents told me whether they were religious or not, but I certainly was, for quite a while. In fact, like you, I was also an altar server (right up until it became clear they wouldn't ordain me officially because I was a girl). You'd be surprised how little it mattered to me how much my parents believed in the religion they carted me off to.

It also sounds like if your folks were still around, they'd be delighted to participate in your children's religious upbringing. I had an extended family of extremely devout Catholics who sent us all kinds of extremely bloody books about the lives of the saints. As a perfectly normal child, I loved reading about teenage girls being burned at the stake and torn limb from limb for picking an unpopular god. I'm sure your relatives would be happy to oblige with religious literature if you made it clear to them that you wanted your kids to be exposed to it.

You could go Unitarian (as I'm sure many will suggest), or follow some meditative tradition, or just do a lot of volunteer work. Maybe you could join an organization that does weekly volunteering things where kids are welcome. Hell, for that matter, I got similar community from the Girl Scouts (which also feature a common if somewhat vague belief system, a weekly activity, and the chance to find family friends) and from a closely-knit neighborhood school. There are tons of places to find community if that's what you're looking for.
posted by crinklebat at 5:02 PM on March 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

Yes, many people feign religion for their kids. Or become Unitarians. I was sent to Catholic school and went to church with my grandma, even though my mother and I are both agnostics. And the "godless" kids with problems: that is family not religion. There are crazy, fucked-up families who believe in god turning out crazy, fucked up kids.

On the other hand, I don't look forward to answering their questions when I, myself, haven't figured things out.

This I can actually address a little more concretely: Just tell them you don't know or discuss the various options out there. When I asked what happened when people died, my mom just explained that some people thought X, some people thought Y and so on. Giving your kids the understanding that knowing everything is okay and that exploring answers can be interesting and fun may be the best gift you could ever give them.
posted by dame at 5:11 PM on March 3, 2007

How do you expect to "teach" your children to believe in something you no longer believe in ?..

"All that said, I look back fondly at the role church played in my family: there was a common belief system, a weekly shared (if boring) activity, and a large group of family friends. It played a significant part in my upbringing and I put it in the "+" column."

Sounds to me like you arent really sure anymore about religion.. but you are sure that you want to bring your kids up in a wholesome and nurturing and "active" (family,etc) enviroment. Thats GREAT..and its what you should do. I would be of the opinion that you dont need religion for that. I'm also of the opinion of not forcing beliefs onto children, that its better to teach them to be open minded and inquisitive and to be questioning. Give them as much information as possible and teach them right from wrong and the rest should fall in place.

When I was growing up, (for some strange reason) my parents took us to whatever church was closest. I swear from as far back as I could remember, I probably went to 5 different churches a year until I was about 16. Baptists, Methodist, Unitarian, Episcopal, holy roller (snakes and all), Evangelical,etc,etc,etc...

Did nothing for me except reinforce hypocrisy ("we are right and everyone else is wrong" type mindset) and I really resented being MADE to attend and being TOLD what to believe. So I pretty much just sat there and waited it out until I was 16 and choose to stop attending.

I'm now buddhist (although I dont practice in the traditional sense). Not buddhist because I choose to, Buddhist because it chose me. (Buddha appeared before me, but thats an entirely different story we dont have time for here. :)
posted by jmnugent at 5:13 PM on March 3, 2007

As a lapsed Catholic (atheist) and a parent I struggled with some of your issues. Although I didn't believe in the majority of RC dogma I did always like the social activism and the feeling of community. The churches I attended had a broader range of socio-econoic classes than any other community organization I have been a part of.

I chose to have my children baptised so I could send them to Catholic school (free in my area when baptised). When my children ask about Catholicism I answer their questions but also try to make them think of all the other religions they are familiar with (for example my five year old daughter horrified me by stating that God was an old, white man with a beard ~ I had to remind her of the stories she knew of Zeus and point out the resemblance between the two and gave a little overview of how Catholicism always incorporated a little of the local religion when spreading to new areas). Many parents I know do go to church only because they enjoy the community, and hey, if you can roll your eyes at the rest, half the congregation will be rolling with you, believe me. One of the reasons I wanted my children to attend a Catholic school was to become famliar with the bible, an important part of understanding western history and literature, and a lot of trashy Hollywood films.

A lot of how this will play out for you also depends on your partner, my husband's family is more religious than mine but seem to view my religion as "more serious"; I haven't attended mass in about nine years but I am registered with the parish. Hubby still calls me a papist (as a joke of course). "Because nothing looks like god" is an excellent picture book to introduce the concept of god to a child.
posted by saucysault at 5:43 PM on March 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

My parents are atheists, but my sister and I were sent off to Sunday School each week for many years. When we started to question whether there was any point to the exercise, and why we went to church but our parents didn't, it was made clear that it was our choice whether we went or not. I think that was a good approach. We got exposed to all that religious stuff without being force-fed it, and my parents had the house to themselves on a Sunday morning.
posted by nowonmai at 7:43 PM on March 3, 2007

posted by bigmusic at 8:31 PM on March 3, 2007

I was raised as a Christian but never really went to church until I was 16, when friends got me involved in their Charismatic church. Due to that church being more like a cult, I left the faith altogether. I wouldn't raise my kid religiously.

I remember a couple of times as a child, I didn't know what church was like (because we didn't go) so I asked my mom to take me, and she did. If my (hypothetical) kid wants to know what it's like, I suppose I'd let them go with a friend or relative, but there'd be none of this coercing them into "getting saved" right then and there without me present.
posted by IndigoRain at 8:34 PM on March 3, 2007

I want to provide them a foundation rather than doubts.

Base this foundation on the golden rule, helping people, and being kind to others. And don't see the unanswered questions as "doubts". Religion tends to give children all of the answers from the get-go. Let them grow curious and wonder about life, the world, and the meaning of it all. Be honest with them when they ask about whether God exists or how life began--you don't know. Encourage them to seek the answers for themselves.

All of the good things related to your upbringing have nothing to do with religion--it was just the setting they occured in. There's no reason you can't replace the weekly church gathering with Sunday brunch and walking dogs for the humane society. You don't need an excuse to bring your family together and do good for humanity--these things are valuable in themselves, and don't need to be backed by religion.
posted by almostmanda at 8:38 PM on March 3, 2007

You got something from this and frankly it is still there for you and for your children if you want. Hint: you don't need to believe in God to get something out of church. Heresy, I know, yet true, and true for more parishioners than you will ever know. The community is a great thing. Beyond that, even if you doubt the creator, or if you don't doubt that but perhaps chafe at the rules imposed by the church, there are options. Whether or not you believe in God, the Bible is filled with incredible insights on life. Everyone, even atheists and agnostics should at least read it. It represents an early civilization view on life, back when life was lived a bit more raw than today and that gives it a potency that some modern new age psych books lack. If rather than the core belief in a God, but more the wacky tenets of the organization bug you, fear not as there are many more liberal church options than Catholicism. Episcopals are Catholic lite with the US branch currently on a collision course with the rest of the world over gays. Methodists are pretty damn liberal too. I doubt there are too many mefites who would be uncomfortable with their teachings about life (you know other than that god stuff which might irk that huge swath of godless mefites). Bottom line, you know that it has something to offer, but take it on your terms. You might expand these later, and you might not, but don't dismiss it because you can't embrace it fully, and don't deny it to your children for that reason either.
posted by caddis at 10:34 PM on March 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

The reason many people go to church is that they have a strong desire to be or become "good".

Unfortunately churches are currently the only form of "organizational goodness" that exists. (Yes you can join some charity that promotes good acts but charities do not teach goodness but only promote such through their acts).

I wish some organizations existed that taught and promoted goodness without involving the supernatural. Goodness is a social construct that doesn't need supernatural/spiritual enforcement.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 11:06 PM on March 3, 2007

I wish some organizations existed that taught and promoted goodness without involving the supernatural. Goodness is a social construct that doesn't need supernatural/spiritual enforcement.

It's been said a couple times already, and yet bears repetition and elaboration: UU.

Universalist Unitarianism religious education curricula are devoted to exposing children to the many spiritual traditions of the worlds (including humanism, atheism and agnosticism). Since UU is creedless, "god" is both optional and universal. That is, no one has to believe in a supernatural force/being, but those that do believe aren't pitted against those that don't believe or who believe in a different superbeing. UU is essentially all the communal and service aspects of churchgoing without the rigid dogma.

As an atheist/humanist who was raised and educated Catholic, I've been pleasantly surprised to find the local UU congregation (led by a Taoist minister, no less) such a comfortable fit.

There is no altar boy type role UU, though, so your kids wouldn't get to do that part. However UU's emphasis on practicing social justice and community service is very similar to Catholicism's.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 1:04 AM on March 4, 2007

The Catholic Church wants your kids. It will take your kids.

I have the slightly heretical idea that giving children a religious education is useful because they can grow out of it. That's to say, I've found that 'cradle' Catholics (lapsed or otherwise) are generally more pragmatic about religion than converts in later life who go through the formal process of learning the catechism and all the weird doctrinal things that Sister Mary Josephine never mentioned at school. Raise a child an atheist, and you might end up with a doctrinaire convert out of rebellion: natural curiosity, forbidden fruit, etc. (The only person I know who was raised as an unabashed atheist and has stayed that way had the advantage of an Oxford philosophy tutor for a father.)

While Richard Dawkins makes the point that one wouldn't call a child a 'liberal' or 'conservative' from infancy, but will attach a religion to them, I also think that there's a reason why we wrap mythologies around our children, from Baby Jesus to the Tooth Fairy to Father Christmas and leave it to them to keep, abandon or refashion them as they become people in their own right.

That said, I suspect you're mainly apprehensive that you won't have part of your own childhood as a model. That's not uncommon: for all the books written on parenting, the touchstone is one's memories of childhood, and straying from it takes you into uncharted territory. Everyone faces that, to some extent, whether it's from being in a new location without the benefit of extended family, or having different work commitments to those of your own parents, or just from the passage of time. And certainly not least because you generally have a partner whose childhood was different from yours in ways that no amount of discussion will ever quite make completely knowable to you.

I also wonder, though perhaps with a little too much projection, if you're contemplating one of those 'changes in job title' that come in life. Being a parent makes you aware of a point when you're no longer a child, and the religious tradition is a way of keeping part of your own parents with you after they're gone. To do something different can feel rough, in that regard, because it may feel like a kind of early abandonment, particularly if you no longer believe in an afterlife. But you should comfort yourself in the knowledge that all parents improvise, have improvised for a long time, and will go on improvising.
posted by holgate at 1:17 AM on March 4, 2007 [3 favorites]

nakedcodemonkey quotes and later says

I wish some organizations existed that taught and promoted goodness without involving the supernatural. Goodness is a social construct that doesn't need supernatural/spiritual enforcement.

It's been said a couple times already, and yet bears repetition and elaboration: UU.

Universalist Unitarianism religious education curricula are devoted to exposing children to the many spiritual traditions of the worlds (including humanism, atheism and agnosticism). Since UU is creedless, "god" is both optional and universal.

You didn't read what I wrote. Goodness can exist apart from Spiritualism. A lot of the discussion in UU involves coping with the various members' interpretation of Spiritualism.

I want an organization that does not involve anything supernatural. Yes, I think the Earth can be seen as some higher concept that selects which species it wants as inhabitants but but this is only a metaphor for natural selection.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 1:43 AM on March 4, 2007

Teach your kids how to think, not what to think.

And religion does not have a monopoly on charity. You should be able to find non-religion non-profits if you want to get involved in such stuff.
posted by krisjohn at 5:23 AM on March 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

as usual, what holgate said.

a suggestion: send them to a Jesuit school, they'll get a kickass education and you'll spare them the dumb parts of a Catholic upbringing
posted by matteo at 6:23 AM on March 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

My father is a non-practicing Catholic and seminary dropout. He did not attend church but sent my sister and I there every week with my mom (also a non-practicing Catholic). Once we were old enough, he would drop us off at church by ourselves. Once I was old enough to drive, we would go to Subway instead and read paperbacks that we smuggled out under our clothes. I found the whole thing really confusing and didn't understand why my father was no longer practicing. He always said he would tell me when I was older, which made me think something awful had happened to him, but then it turned out that he just felt the church was hypocritical to pour so much money into the Vatican and not enough into helping poor people. Needless to say, I stopped attending church as soon as I turned 18.

The whole charade was ridiculous and confusing. He professes to be disappointed that my sister and I are atheists, but really, what was he expecting? (My husband and I both now refer to ourselves as "recovering Catholics.") That being said, I do really appreciate the "secular" Catholic upbringing we had at home. We never discussed religion, but my dad was fairly strict and gave us clearly defined limits and a sense of right and wrong. In spite of the religious confusion, I think he is a great parent and frequently tell him so now that I am adult (and am contemplating starting a family of my own in a few years). Of course I hated all the rules when I was a kid, but like I said, I really appreciate it now. I plan to raise my kids in a similar way (but without ever taking them to church) -- and I think you could too if you decided that route was the right one for you and your family. I see nothing wrong with raising your kids in a religious tradition if you can find one you believe in, but if not, I think you can explain to your kids why it's important to be considerate of other people, tell the truth, etc., without God.
posted by mingshan at 7:45 AM on March 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

Why not raise your kids to be agnostics or atheists, or ignore the issue altogether? I do find something wrong with raising a kid in some religious tradition, even UU, whether you believe in it yourself or not -- but especially if you don't. You yourself have partially escaped religion, why condemn your kids? For more, see Sam Harris' writings.
posted by davy at 10:52 AM on March 4, 2007

More power to people who dig UU, but UU is not going to quench a yearning for an Catholic upbringing.

Catholic parishes are big, mainstream in their communities, diverse economically, ethnically and intellectually, (mostly) apolitical, and oriented around elaborate, traditional observations of very specific Biblical and magisterial teachings.

UU congregations are the opposite in every way. They're small, at their community's fringe, frequently monolithic in their economic, ethnic and intellectual composition, highly politicized, and they make a virtue of not having any particular dogma, to say the least of ceremonial observation thereof.
posted by MattD at 12:42 PM on March 4, 2007

besides unitarianism, there is always scientific pantheism, although that's even more fringey.

i was also raised christian by parents who are actively, but not dogmatically, christian (i am now pagan and will be raising my children the same, which works much better for me). when i'm feeling dramatic, i consider it one of the biggest scandals of my early life that my parents allowed and encouraged me to become indoctrinated in something that they valued, but as adults did not believe in the same literal way. i guess another way to explain that would be that if you really love church i think it would be fine to get involved, but please be open about your own beliefs, interpretations, and motivations for doing so in age-appropriate ways, and make it clear to them that opinions vary and you don't expect them to swallow all the dogma whole.
posted by lgyre at 1:31 PM on March 4, 2007

UU congregations are the opposite in every way. They're small, at their community's fringe, frequently monolithic in their economic, ethnic and intellectual composition, highly politicized, and they make a virtue of not having any particular dogma, to say the least of ceremonial observation thereof.

I've been to a couple different UU congregations in different areas, and your assertions here are generally false, with the possible exception of them being "small", but perhaps you're being slightly hyperbolic. Anyway, my mom's congregation has well over 200 people and they're growing, so YMMV. They're not even the largest UU congregation in my area. And while they might have a higher percentage of college professors and the like in the group, they're hardly monolithic in any way. If you're looking for the structure of Catholicism, then you're certainly not going to find it in a UU group, but I hardly think UUs are as fringe as you maintain. And let's not even start to pretend that the UU church is highly politicized while the Catholics aren't...although that might be more of a difference between the clergy and laeity.
posted by LionIndex at 1:34 PM on March 4, 2007

I had a vaguely religious upbringing and I've since rejected that for more of a Dawkins world. However, what really pulled my family and community together was my family's involvement in Guiding. My grandmother was the local Brownie leader and my mom was the Guide leader. My mom's and grandma's friends were also leaders at various levels of the organization. And many sons and husbands were involved in Scouting. This gave us weekly commitments. There were always large scale projects, like building the regional Scout/Guide camp, fixing up the community hall, developing programs, running big camps, putting on bazaars and bakesales, etc. And then there were smaller projects, like hikes, meetings, packing holiday hampers, weekend camps, and the like.

Guiding taught me a strong moral code. Honesty, trustworthiness, citizenship, teamwork, service, equality of nations, feminism and so on. I loved knowing that people like Roberta Bondar, Barbara Walters, Erma Bombeck, Carrie Fisher, Queen Elizabeth, lots of astronauts, and even the poorest people in the poorest nations of the world...it made me feel like I belonged to a group that touched all parts of life and that I was just as capable as they were.

I don't know if Guiding and Scouting are still the same. But perhaps you could find something similar -- some sort of community organization or even sports club -- that would provide the same rituals, structure and whatnot. Since having my own son, I've already found that I'm part of a community and I can see that hanging out with likeminded parents during the schooling process will have some parallels.
posted by acoutu at 3:15 PM on March 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

Treat religion like a disease - expose your children to a live form of it at an early age, and let them become immune on their own.

I always liked this approach better than raising kids without religion and letting them figure it out on their own. I'm young, but I'm in your situation. I also think my Orthodox Jewish upbringing was largely positive, but I'm leaving it for my own reasons. Hell, I'm working on the same issues, and I've got my own AskMeFi post coming up.
posted by awenner at 7:08 PM on March 4, 2007

It's essential for kids to learn about religion, which has been a driving force for much of history and is still a major influence on many people.

However, your kids live with you and know instantly when you're not being honest.

My lapsed Jewish parents sent me to (Reform) Sunday school so I would "have the experience," but what I learned wass to despise it as much as they did. I terribly resented being forced to go, and dropped out at the most embarrassing point for them, in the middle of the final year.

When I got to college, I started to sing, which of course involved lots of religious music. The conductor had the right idea. He said that you have to sing it as if you believe it, and this is worthwhile because of the great music (Handel's Messiah).

You learn about religious music as part of learning about music. Ditto for religious history, religious philosophy and religious art.

Thinking about ultimate things is part of growing up, and your kids will undoubtedly ask you about them, beginning surprisingly young. They'll also learn plenty from their peers who come from committed religious families. Most of what they learn will be naive and often directly opposite to actual religious teaching, but that happens whether or not you're a believer or send them to religious training.

I think the important thing is to be honest with your kids and not to try to force religion on them simply because it might somehow be good for them. There's nothing worse than being in a captive audience.
posted by KRS at 12:00 PM on March 5, 2007

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